Why atheists care if you pray (spoiler alert: we don’t)

Part of an occasional series addressing popular misconceptions about atheism. For more in the series, click here.

You may have seen this meme when it originally circulated a year or two ago. It popped up on my Facebook feed, and I remember leaving a simple comment: We don’t.

Dear AtheistI can’t speak for all atheists. No one can. But I can speak for myself, so here goes: I don’t care who prays or where. I don’t care if you pray first thing when you wake up, last thing before you go to sleep, before each meal, after each meal, three times a day while facing Mecca, nine times a day while counting beads, twice a day while brushing your teeth, or 20 times a day while clipping your fingernails and toenails. I do not care if you pray at home, in your car, at your job, at school, on line at the post office, in a park, behind your desk, in court, on the street or at a sports stadium.

I care about your attempt to get our government to acknowledge, support and promote your God by imposing prayer on me and my children.

I want you to ask yourself this question. How would you feel if I went to a school bus stop and started telling your kids that there is no God, that all gods are fictional attempts by ancient, superstitious peoples to explain natural phenomena that they did not understand. How would you feel if I told them that Yahweh was a murderous and wholly unpleasant tribal deity, and that the historical Jesus bore as much resemblance to the Biblical Jesus as Vlad the Impaler bore to Dracula? You’d be pretty upset with me, wouldn’t you? Yet my speech, as I’ve described it, would be Constitutionally protected in the United States (as you would be protected if you preached the opposite message in the same manner).

Now, imagine the same scenario as above, except now I am a teacher. Or a judge. Or a mayor. Telling students there is no God. Telling potential jurors that Jesus is an exaggerated historical figure (if he existed at all). Telling constituents that Yahweh is as real as Zeus. Christians would, rightly, object at anyone who abuses his position as a public official to promote the notion that there is no God.

Likewise, as an atheist, I object to any attempt by religious people to use government to impose religion on anyone. When a child is told that he must submit to God in order to express his love for his country, I oppose that. It’s not that I oppose patriotism. It’s not that I oppose your belief that you must submit to God to express your love for your country. That’s your business. I simply object when government tells me or my children that we must submit to God. That is not government’s role.

It’s like people who don’t have the Ten Commandments hanging anywhere in their own house but cry like banshees for the “right” to post the Ten Commandments in a courthouse. The Ten Commandments don’t belong in a public courthouse. They are NOT the foundation for American law, and do not deserve to be treated as such. The United States government has no Constitutional right whatsoever to tell me who God is, what his name is, how many gods I can worship, what day of the week I can worship him, whether I can make a statue of Him and bow before it, who I sleep with or whether I can want stuff.

Look, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that it’s not easy to determine when a public prayer constitutes an endorsement of religion that violates the First Amendment. It’s especially difficult with a Supreme Court that does not have the courage to be consistent in its rulings (finding that prayer in school violates the First Amendment while the insertion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance does not, for example, is logically inconsistent at best). For years, the court has permitted religious practices by the state under the doctrine that the Constitution permits a “civil religion” that makes no specific claims about God but acknowledges his existence through things like “In God We Trust” on our money, “under God” in the pledge, and an invocation before meetings of legislative bodies.

I don’t see anything in the Constitution that exempts civil religion from the First and Fourteenth Amendments. I just see theists using the power of government to impose a belief in “God” on the entire population, whether everyone agrees with it or not.

It’s funny to me, because such a watering down of the concept of God would seem to violate the 10 Commandments (having another God and/or taking His name in vain).

But is it a violation of the Constitution if a student wants to give a benediction at a public high school graduation? Is it a violation if cheerleaders want to pray before a football game?

I don’t know all the answers. What I do know is, in all of those cases, the key question is simple: IS IT A VIOLATION OF THE CONSTITUTION?

Honest people can disagree on whether a particular prayer is a violation or not. But the issue is not atheists being upset that people are praying. Atheists could not care less if people prayed. Atheists care about the Constitution being respected, which means government does not act to establish religion. That’s really all there is to it.

I wish more people understood that.

The majority of this article was previously posted in an earlier blog.

 

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